Veit Helmer

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7.3 Tuvalu (1999)

Veit Helmer (Germany, 1968) assisted Wim Wenders before turning to direction.

Tuvalu (1999) is a silent, black and white sendup of slapstick comedy, cartoons and Hollywood melodrama set in a dreadful environment reminiscent of German expressionism. The film links Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Tati and Jeunet's City Of Lost Children (1995). The film is populated by a motley crew of colorful, eccentric characters, that employ all sorts of musichall antics. The director has prepared a stew of classic film-making: frantic Mack Sennett-inspired fights and chases, a naive Buster Keaton-lookalike protagonist, a cartoonish, Roadrunner-inspired villain, a bit of Charlie Chaplin-esque romanticism. Except that everybody is desperately poor and it rains all the time. Overall, Tuvalu is a stylistic tour de force. And it is probably one of the most visually stunning black-and-white films ever made. The whole film feels like one long dream.

Anton, a mute, is struggling in a storm and is using a binocular to stare down at what is happening in a building. Initially, it is not clear whether he is on a ship, on a balloon or what. It turns out he is on the roof of a building. A blind man, the owner of the building, drags him inside. An old woman is selling tickets out of a ticket booth to the few customers who stand in line, mostly elderly people who pay with buttons of their clothes. It turns out that the building is dilapidated rococo bath house that is literally falling apart. The blind man cannot see the devastation and is still living as in the glory days. The old woman is his wife. Every morning Anton (his son) and his wife stage an elaborate charade for the sake of the old man: they play a tape of a crowd at the beach and they make noises simulating a crowd walking into the bathhouse. The blind man sits on a stool armed with a whistle and acts as the lifeguard for this inexistent crowd. The truth is that only an elderly lady on crutches comes every day. Anton is the handyman and janitor who takes care of the place. His most important job is to keep the pump working. This machine is a glorious piece of hardware that the old man treats like a treasure. Everything depends on this machine. And the machine symbolizes the entire life of this man: old, decaying, ridicule, but still functioning and pretending to be feeding water to a gorgeous bath house. Anton is also in charge of inflating the old man: there is literally a tube sticking out of his belly and Anton has to blow air into it periodically to keep the old man from dying (another symbol for the old man's life). The whole business exists only in the imagination of the old man and Anton's job is to keep that dream alive.
As Anton does his chores around the building, we appreciate how poor its condition is. One constant throughout the film is that it seems to rain all the time. This land seems to only know bad weather. Whenever Anton walks to the roof, he is in the middle of a storm. Needless to say, the water leaks inside through the many holes in the roof. Bums live outside and every evening ask for shelter. Anton receives gifts from them in return for letting them in.
Anton's main interest is a girl, Eva, who lives with her elderly, limping father who always wears a sailor's uniform. She lives in the building across the channel. She is young, beautiful and lively. Anton spies her moves with the binocular. As soon as she enters the bath house, Anton gets excited. Eva makes fun of his excitement. The bath house has a room where people can undress and shower, but no shower works properly and no door locks. In fact, many have cracks from which one can see everything. And that's how one day Anton watches Eva undress while he is inspecting the pipes in the basement: through a crack in the floor. Eva sees him and smiles, amused.
The old sailor has a little coffer in which he keeps his valuables. He gives some to the people of the bath house as a tip, as if he was going away.
Eventually we realize that the film is set in a desolate piece of land where only these two buildings are still standing: the one where Eva lives and the bath house. They are both decrepit. Around them, there are only dead boats and ships, boats that have long been abandoned. It is a cemetery for boats. There is no town.
The blind man has a son, Gregor, a very ambitious and ugly-looking man. One day Gregor comes to pick up the blind man and takes him to an event in which a number of officers on a stage are inaugurating a construction project, while a crowd of poor and mainly elderly people is protesting (under the rain, of course). The project involves blowing up the building where all these poor people live, including Eva and her father, and the blind man is the owner and stands to profit from the operation. While the workers are setting the explosives, Eva's father walks into the building and chains himself to a wall. Anton watches them from the roof through the binocular. The city officers hesitate but Gregor grabs the lever and pulls it grinning like a psycho. The building explodes and Eva sobs, but her father is alive: the only piece of the building that still stands is the wall to which the old sailor is chained.
A model laid in front of them shows the new, modern buildings to be constructed all around the bath house. Gregor hates the bath house, but his father grabs the little bath house of the model and caresses it, implying that he is opposing its demolition. Gregor, greedy, would gladly blow the bath house up too. They leave in the car (Gregor counts the money but his father is more interested in playing with the model of the bath house), while Eva hauls away her father in a wheelbarrow to Anton's shelter.
Of course, Anton lets them in for free. He then spies as Eva swims nude in the pool with a pet goldfish in a fishbowl.
Gregor is angry that the old man does not want to get rid of the bath house. He walks to the roof and throws bricks and plaster on the bathers. Anton tries to catch the debris before they hurt someone but inadvertently causes a fatal injury to Eva's father. Gregor the hypocrite is quick to call an ambulance to impress the girl. Thus Eva is mad at the good-hearted Anton and grateful to the villain Gregor, who, after the funeral, moves in with her on the boat.
The accident provokes the visit of a building inspector, who makes an endless list of problems with the establishment (but is fascinated by the old pump) and gives them a few days to fix them. Anton can't even buy the parts because there is no money in the house. He asks Gregor for help, but Gregor, instead, has allied himself with Eva, who dreams of sailing to Tuvalu (she found an old map of Oceania in the father's coffer), and needs a valve to fix the engine. It turns out that valve is not manufactured anymore, but the exact same valve is used in the bath house's pump, the pump that keeps the pool running.
Night time, Eva breaks into Anton's room and finds him asleep hugging a doll that looks like her, one of the gifts the bums gave him in return for shelter. She takes her own underwear off and puts them on the doll. Then she steals the precious valve. Anton wakes up and they fight. The valve falls into a pipe and they run after it all the way to the vast underground sewer, where the fight continues in the sea of excrements. She kisses him and he lets go, but then swims across the channel and climbs her boat and gets back his valve (it looks like this is the first time that he sets foot outside the bath house). He also finds the map of Tuvalu and takes it with him.
The bums help Anton fix the bath house in time for the inspection, always laughing and running like gnomes, but Gregor is instead determined to sabotage the inspection. The day of the inspection, Gregor ambushes the police officer and steals his clothes and moustaches. Then the police officer ambushes the inspector and steals his clothes. The two show up at the bath house and begin the inspection. Each item of the list is "fixed" with the creative effort of the team of bums, who run up and down the stairs, decorate the craks in the walls and the ceiling, hide behind pipes and even sit on the roof with umbrellas to remedy the building's shortcomings. At each step Gregor dressed like the police officer is shocked, while the police officer dressed like the inspector is pleased.
While this charade goes on, the girl is again on her way to steal the magic valve. She enters the sewer on a raft, reaches the wall and uses a sledgehammer to break in. But Gregor has preceded her, stealing the valve in order to drain the pool and therefore cause the establishment to be closed down.
In the meantime the real inspector arrives (scantily dressed).
Eva is suddenly moved by Anton's efforts to save the machine and disgusted by Gregor's vileness. She switches sides and helps Anton restore order, while the bums dump Gregor in the pool. The real inspector inspects the checklist prepared by the fake inspector and simply adds the stamp of approval.
Gregor, completely mad, takes revenge by revealing the charade to his dad: he has his dad touch the tape recorder that plays the people's voices. Instead of having a heart attack, the old blind man is amused. Then Gregor vents his anger by opening the tube in his father's belly and letting all the air come out: the old man dies in a matter of seconds.
He is buried in the pool itself. His wife walks out of the building carrying only the tape recorder. Anton turns off the pump, takes the valve and gives it to Eva. Gregor is already advancing on a bulldozer and rapidly destroys the building. While the building is collapsing, the bums frantically work to make a hole in the wall big enough to smuggle the machine out on Eva's raft. An ambulance arrives to bring Gregor to the madhouse, while the elderly woman on crutches walks through the ruins to the ticket booth. Anton and the bums haul the pump on Eva's boat. Anton and Eva can finally leave for Tuvalu in the wide wide sea (but not without arguing about who has to steer the helm).

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